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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

How Bourbon-Barrel Shortages Are Affecting Local Distillers

Posted By on Wed, Aug 19, 2015 at 8:49 AM

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Square One Brewery's Steve Neukomm. - STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Steve Truesdell
  • Square One Brewery's Steve Neukomm.

The first distillers, in an effort to make a crop of grain more portable and long-lasting, quickly discovered that wooden barrels did more than just store the highly concentrated (and thus compact) booze that they made from corn, wheat, rye or barley. Barrels changed it in some wonderful ways.

Unaged white whiskey is rough and hot. Put that same juice in a charred new American white oak barrel, and taste what happens after it has been allowed to mature there a couple of years or so: In addition to mellowing and coloring the whiskey, that oak imparts beautiful flavors, primarily vanilla and warm spice ones like clove and cinnamon, but also subtle stone fruit and some tropical notes.

The charcoal from the charred oak also acts to filter the whiskey. For bourbon, the process is part of its very DNA: By definition, bourbon is at least 51 percent corn and must spend two years in new American oak. Whether it's bourbon or rye whiskey, or a wheat-based whiskey or a blend, that time spent reposing in oak barrels is what makes it into the magical spirit we love.

And we're loving it more than ever. The demand for brown spirits has grown substantially over the last few years. Steve Neukomm, owner of Square One Brewery and Distillery, reasons that it's part of a general increase in demand for more flavor, which explains everything from the rise of craft breweries to the explosion of the foodie movement. "Vodka was the drink in the '60s, and people were eating a lot of fast food. People weren't going for taste. But now people are getting more discerning and want more flavor," Neukomm says.

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